When I was persuaded a couple of years ago to test my knowledge of Millennial English on a television show, I guessed my way past some of the answers and stumbled at the rest. One could guess the connotations of “fleek”, “slay” and even “adulting” from the way they sounded, but how was one to know that “quiche” meant hotter than hot? The “generation gap” is a cliché, but the use of language is the clearest evidence of its existence. That today’s young have evolved a vocabulary that means nothing to their parents shouldn’t surprise anyone, since the same charge has been levelled at every previous generation. But while most of us can understand why it’s “cool” to be seen with a “hot” date, being told someone is a “snacc” requires a cultural leap. After all, since when was a cheese toast or a sabudana vada a symbol of attractiveness?
The better-known millennial expressions are not new words but familiar English ones now assigned different meanings by the young — terms like “woke” (nothing to do with your alarm clock, but meaning socially aware), “lit” (connoting something that’s amazing or fun) and “thirsty” (meaning desperate for attention). Some others don’t depart very far from their original meanings: “low-key” on a millennial’s tongue means not “quiet”, but “subtle”, and “shook” means “shaken”.
Millennials are best known, however, for the tendency to abbreviate their emotions into acronyms that older people can only surmise the meanings of. This may no doubt be because millennials are also inveterate texters, a form of communication that encourages brevity. Thus “FOMO”, or “fear of missing out”, is a millennial creation that explains why many people rush to join others in a crowd, a party, or for that matter a mob, without fully understanding what they are up to. YOLO is another millennial acronym, for “you only live once”, an expression that justifies some of the more foolish decisions of the riskily adventurous. Other millennial terms include ONM (on my way), JK (just kidding), TMI (too much information), NITM (not in the mood), SMH (shaking my head), TTYL (talk to you later), TBH (to be honest), IMHO (in my humble opinion) and BFF (best friend forever).
Modern life and the Internet have given us many millennial terms — emoji or emoticon, for the pictorial symbols people send instead of words to express simple emotions, for instance. (People who texted LOL to indicate that they were “laughing out loud” at something might now just send a picture of a laughing face instead, or post “hearts”). Sometimes they send GIFs — little pictures or photos that bounce around repeatedly, made in the “graphics interchange format,” hence the name. “Spam” used to be, for older generations, a kind of processed meat; today we all know the word in its application to unwanted emails. A “troll” was a little Norwegian gnome; now it’s an obnoxious person who deliberately provokes others online. And all of us who use Twitter are familiar with RT (for retweet), DM (for direct message), “likes” and “trending” (when a hashtag is repeated or RT-ed by a large number of users).
Most of these are examples of YABA, “Yet Another Bloody Acronym”. But while many millennial expressions are indeed formed from acronyms, not all are. Thus BAE stands for “before anyone else” – but it also refers to one’s girlfriend, as a contraction of “babe” (a word that would not have struck earlier generations as requiring any further contracting!). Another superfluous shortening is the millennial “jelly”, which merely means “jealous” — and uses the same number of syllables, so why bother?
Dr. James Emery White’s blog on understanding Generation Z and millennial vocabulary makes it all amply clear: “First, I want you to know it’s totally lit to be writing this. Hope nothing that follows feels cringey. Sometimes I can get a little extra. And when we’re not F2F, it’s hard to tell. I’m just hoping it reads fleeky. But trust me, what follows is high-key. TBH, I just hope you don’t throw any shade my way but, instead, will read and wig.”
The only question that remains is, did any of you born before 1981 understand what he was trying to say?
Shashi Tharoor’s World of Words is a weekly column in which the politician, diplomat and wordsmith par excellence will dissect words and language
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